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DAWN OF THE DEAD
Blu-ray Edition

Film review by Gordon Justesen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer
Director: Zack Snyder
Audio: DTS HD 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 110 Minutes
Release Date: September 30, 2008

"Are these people alive or dead?"

"…We don't know."

Film ***1/2

In 2004, there were two high profile remakes of two of the most definitive horror films of the 1970s. First was the updating of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and now comes a new take on George A. Romero's forever classic, Dawn of the Dead. While I didn't find the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre too much enthralling or exciting, I immediately found the update of Dawn of the Dead to be quite a pleasant surprise.

For a remake of a great film, it does a terrific job of not damaging the memory of its original material source. Unlike the TCM remake, which feels a bit by the numbers along with the spiced up technical aspects, this re-imagining of the zombie classic from first time director Zack Snyder has more bite than you'd might expect. There is much gore-galore, fast paced action, but at the same time the film has given a good amount of attention to its characters.

Set in the town of Everett, Wisconsin, the story involves, of course, a deadly plague that is spreading slowly but surely, turning ordinary people into flesh eating zombies. The first to take notice of the horrific events is Ana (Sarah Polley), a hospital nurse who manages to avoid being bitten by her husband, and a neighborhood girl, only to crash her car into a tree while fleeing an area plagued by both the dead, and extremely paranoid survivors.

Ana then wakes up to come across a group of survivors who seem to be escaping the very same horrific matter. Tough-as-nails cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames) helps Ana to her feet. The two then come across two other human drifters, Michael (Jake Weber) and Andre (Mekhi Phifer), along with Andre's pregnant wife. After momentary scouting for an area of possible refuge, the group of five soon come across Cross Roads Mall, which appears to be safely abandoned.

It is here where the band of survivors come across another group of survivors, an untrusting trio of mall security guards led by CJ (Michael Kelly), who immediately doesn't take any chances with the new bunch. Fear of one another plays an important role at first, but the two groups soon put it aside to face off with their primary foe, which seems to grow increasingly by the minute outside the mall's locked doors.

I can already predict that with this movie and 300 under his belt, director Zack Snyder is going to have a nice future in the business, and he so deserves it. The visuals he creates in Dawn of the Dead play a big part in the movie's strengths. Snyder's handling of the mall setting, especially in a chilling sequence set in a parking garage, demonstrates that he has a knack for atmosphere.

Like in 28 Days Later, the zombies in this film are able to run at high speeds, as opposed the ones in Romero's film, which lurched around slowly and allowed the human characters to run around them in order to get away. About the last half of the movie is essentially a nonstop shooting machine, and in this case I mean that in a good way. Zombies are killed off in the most outrageous ways I've ever seen. And as an added bonus, there's a jaw dropping scene that perfectly demonstrates why a chainsaw should never be used inside a moving vehicle.

As I mentioned earlier, another strong element in this version are the characters, which go way beyond the stock characters we've come to expect in just about every single horror movie that comes along. Horror movies are always more effective when this method is applied. 28 Days Later and Identity are such examples, and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead can be added to the list. If anything, the adapted screenplay by James Gunn deserves a lot of credit for that.

I especially admired the scenes between Sarah Polley and Jake Weber. The film hints at a possible love fling between Michael and Ana, but the movie is a lot smarter than that. Because of this, their scenes are much more effective and the way they feel about one another is conveyed perfectly in the film's final moments. I also appreciated the introduction of the character of Andy, the owner of a gun shop across from the mall who communicates with Kenneth on the rooftop through written messages. That whole scenario was a very nice touch.

I would like to point out that this film has completely reinvented the use of opening and closing credit sequences. This film is book ended by credit sequences that really deserve an award of some sort. I know for sure that the late great credit sequence master Saul Bass (Se7en) would've been proud of what was done had he been here to witness it. The fact that the music of the late Johnny Cash finds its way onto this sequence is amazing beyond words. His song "When the Man Comes Around" fits this movie in a way I'd never thought possible.

And when the closing credits appear, all I can say is do not dare switch the movie off.

The way to properly look at this version of Dawn of the Dead is that of a technical reinvention. When George Romero's film was made in 1978, it was an independent production that could only deliver so much in terms of its budget. Romero had another strength going for him, which was the underlying social commentary involving society's insanity driven by consumerism, so that was no doubt the focus of the film.

While the 2004 version can never surpass the overall quality of the original, I will give it a strong amount of credit for delivering a close enough impact. It is certainly one of the more satisfying horror releases in quite some time, mixing enough gore, style, and humor to make for a most memorable cinematic joyride.

BONUS TRIVIA: Look closely, and you'll spot several cast mates of the original Dawn of the Dead, including Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Tom Savini, in small bit parts.

ADDITIONAL TRIVIA: Foree, who appears as a televangelist, happens to utter his famous line from the original film, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth."

Video ****

Universal has been most impressive in their endeavors on Blu-ray, and Dawn of the Dead shows how good horror can look!  Thanks to a mix of dark sequences and various levels of lighting, this disc shows all the contrast and detail that high definition can deliver, with good coloring and balances and clean, crisp images throughout.

Audio ****

I've always said horror and 5.1 are a perfect match, but let me add that uncompressed HD sound in the mix makes for a perfect three-way.  This Blu-ray disc, with its DTS HD soundtrack, is explosively dynamic.  The loud moments are nearly overwhelming, but the quieter, more subtle moments are not lost at all.  Crossover signals are plentiful and smooth, and the subwoofer gives the broader action sequences some real kick.

Features ****

The features are done a little differently for the Blu-ray release, incorporating most of the extras into Universal's exclusive "U-Control".  With a click of your remote, you can access cast and crew interviews and other behind the scenes features via picture-in-picture, and thanks to U-Control, you can pick what you want to watch and leave what you don't care about.  The disc also includes a full commentary from director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman.

Summary:

Though I'll admit that I wasn't hip to the idea of a remake of Dawn of the Dead, and I realize my written words probably won't influence loyalists of the original to experience this new take, believe me when I tell you that it is very much worth a look on this Blu-ray offering!

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